By Jon Bonné Lifestyle editor
updated 7/14/2004 7:58:53 PM ET 2004-07-14T23:58:53

A day after a report by Department of Agriculture inspectors pointed out major holes in the government’s testing for mad cow disease, a top department official insisted that additional cases of the disease in the United States won’t have any impact on human health.

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“It really, truly … does not matter if you find other animals,” Elsa Murano, the USDA’s undersecretary of agriculture for food safety, said during a news conference at the annual meeting of the nation’s food scientists.

Cow parts considered to be at the highest risk for infection by bovine spongiform encephalopathy, as the always-fatal disease is also called, were banned from the human food chain in January, though they can still be used in some animal feeds like pet foods, and in non-food products. Government officials frequently cite the ban on so-called specified risk materials (SRMs), such as the spinal cord and part of the lower intestines, as a key safeguard.

Inspector general's report
Murano said the recommendations in the draft report, which was released by the office of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., “can be very helpful in giving agencies suggestions on how to improve.”  But she added that the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General, which authored the report, “doesn’t have the expertise to find the solution” to fix shortfalls in the testing process, which is overseen by the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Among the report’s criticisms:

  • Testing is voluntary, not mandatory. The USDA does not require any animal-processing plant to participate, thus making the selection of cattle far less random. The agency used a similar method for obtaining cattle samples prior to the discovery of this country’s first case of mad cow last December, and was criticized for the practice.
  • Loopholes with the testing system have continued as recently as April, when an apparently ill Texas cow went into the food supply without being tested. Specifically, many of what the government considers the highest-risk cattle haven’t been tested, including those that die on the farm and many that exhibit signs of nervous-system disorders. In the latter category, just 162 of 680 cattle were tested from 2002 to 2004, the report said.
  • The selection of cattle continues to focus on sicker cattle and animals older than 30 months. The USDA has defended this practice, calling it a “targeted” effort. Murano said Wednesday that it was not worth testing healthy animals who do not show symptoms of the disease, such as nervous-system ailments, because the disease cannot be detected in apparently healthy animals. But hundreds of seemingly healthy animals in Europe and Japan have tested positive, including one as young as 20 months.
  • At least two more witnesses have corroborated that the lone diseased U.S. cow was not a “downer,” which is the term for non-ambulatory cattle. Downers were banned from the food supply in January.

'An ill-advised campaign'
Under a new program launched in June, the government hopes to test as many as 268,000 cattle in the next 18 months to try and determine how prevalent BSE may be in the United States. Critics believe the program falls far short of needed disease surveillance, and pointed to the inspector general’s report as proof.

“The USDA has carefully chosen an ill-advised campaign to cover up the flaws of a system that endangers both the American public and the American beef industry,” said Felicia Nestor of the Government Accountability Project, which helped uncover evidence that the infected U.S. cow could in fact walk. “Real science has to win over political science.”

The USDA insists the tests are an animal health project, and have no impact on food safety.

Murano’s division, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, is responsible for collecting samples from high-risk cattle to be tested, but does not conduct the tests. She said another division of the USDA, the Agricultural Marketing Service, would begin performing quality-control spot checks on the testing process. And she said her division’s inspectors use a very stringent definition of downers; any cow that falls down at a processing plant is to be condemned, she said.

Progress in other areas of food safety
Murano also noted progress in other areas of food safety. The number of major USDA food recalls was cut in half from 2002 to 2003, and there wasn’t a single large-scale meat recall last year.  And she cited Centers for Disease Control data that significant illnesses from E. coli O157:H7, which has been linked to human deaths, dropped by 42 percent since 1996.

She also said the agency had launched a pilot program to rank food plants by relative risk, so it could better allocate its inspection and audit resources. She did not say where the program had been set up.

After several high-profile cases of E. coli outbreaks in the 1990s, the meat industry embarked on a major effort to reduce the presence of the bacteria. Major meat packers began sharing information on better meat-handling procedures. The bacteria was found in 0.87 percent of USDA-tested samples in 2001, but only 0.20 percent this year so far.

“I don’t think we have a significant risk of E. coli O157:H7 anymore,” said Dane Bernard, vice president of food safety and quality for Keystone Foods, a major meat and poultry packer.

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